Hierarchy of Introductions
Precedence and respect are signalled by the name said first. Courtesy gives honour to those who are female, older or more distinguished.
Men should be introduced to women. ‘Charlotte, may I introduce John Debrett? John, this is Charlotte Berkeley’. Aim to introduce younger people to their elders or junior employees, say, to more senior people, such as directors. A new arrival should be introduced to a group. Husbands and wives should be introduced separately by name (‘John and Emma Debrett’), not as ‘The Debretts’.
As the person making the introduction you should make sure you have the attention of both parties, but avoid steering them physically, for example with a hand on the shoulder. Wait for an appropriate moment and do not force the person you wish to introduce on to the person you would like them to meet.
Then address the more senior person by name and say: ‘John, may I introduce Charles Berkeley? Charles, this is John Debrett.’ You may wish then to add a short explanation, or provide some information: ‘John is a wine expert’, or ‘Charles has just moved back to London’, or ‘I know you are both tennis fans.’ It is helpful to give both first name and last name, even in an informal setting, as it provides more information, which is the object of the exercise.
Bear in mind that introductions should help people to decide what mode of address to use. If you know someone very well, and use a nickname, it is more helpful to introduce your friend by the name the other person may be expected to use.
If you suspect that people are likely to have met before, you may want to say: ‘Charlotte, I am sure you know John Debrett?’
Use of Titles
In a more formal context, you may also use titles such as ‘Lord’ or ‘Professor’ – older people will expect to be introduced by their title. It is then up to them to say ‘Please call me Jane.’
The person you are introducing should not have to guess that the other is, for example, a doctor or a lord, or even someone who would rather be called ‘Mrs.’ It is considerate for the person making the introduction to provide information that may avert future embarrassment.
It is less common in everyday practice to introduce someone as ‘Mr. John Debrett’, although Mr, Mrs and Miss are titles too. An exception may be when introducing a child to an adult. Some adults wish children to address them as, for example, ‘Mrs Debrett’. However, to introduce people using the titles ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ for one party and not the other may imply that you are insinuating one party is less important, so you must be sensitive and not appear rude. Remember that certain people are nearly always known professionally as Mr, Mrs or Miss, for example schoolmasters and mistresses and senior surgical professionals.
If you dry up and suddenly cannot remember someone’s name and are with two people who are clearly expecting you to make the introduction, the best thing is to act swiftly and blame yourself – perhaps make a charmingly self-deprecating remark about your failing memory.
You may want to remind yourself of the name of someone to whom you have just been introduced by using his or her name once or twice, but try not to overdo it. If someone gets your name wrong, correct them as soon as possible, enunciating clearly and firmly but politely, so there is no mistake. It can be very embarrassing for both parties if such errors persist.
If you cannot remember someone’s name the best thing is to admit it and blame yourself. Alternatively, you can try to stimulate your memory by asking them how long ago you last saw them or where it was.
Do not be offended when people cannot get your name into their head, just repeat it patiently. However, if a person blanks you several times at successive gatherings then it is rude of them, unless they have a genuine problem. Try your hardest not to do the same to others.
Unfortunately, the British cannot use an equivalent of ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ without a last name. You cannot really call someone ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ (other than schoolteachers, as above) and should only use ‘Sir’ for a schoolmaster, or if you are in the forces or a very young man. Men may use ‘Sir’ appropriately in more circumstances than women, who would usually only do so if serving a client or customer or if addressing a male member of the Royal Family.
When to Make Introductions
In days gone by, when people moved in smaller social circles, it was considered almost rude to make introductions (although at formal occasions names would be announced), as it could imply a person was an outsider if they did not already know the other guests. This is no longer the case and it is now more polite to over-introduce than to assume people know one another.
Introducing yourself when you do not know anyone is perfectly acceptable. In a business or professional setting, it is an essential skill and it is often the most practical solution in a purely social setting. If you do need to introduce yourself step forward with a smile and say: ‘May I introduce myself? I am John Debrett.’ The response should be the person’s name. ‘Charlotte Berkeley.’ Or ‘Hello’ followed by the name. Speaking clearly is polite, as it is maddening for people to have to ask you to repeat yourself.
Introductions are usually followed by a handshake and the words: ‘How do you do?’ to which the response is: ‘How do you do?’ With younger people and in more informal settings you may prefer: ‘Hello’ or even ‘Hi’ but resist adding: ‘Pleased to meet you.’ Never assume that ‘How do you do?’ means: ‘How are you?’ If genuinely asked how you are the answer is: ‘Very well thank you, how are you?’ Do not give a true account of your state of health.
Keep it simple and brief. Do not indulge in double clasps, exaggerated up and down movements, or reeling the person in and patting their back. Some men do a ‘war dance’ of back and arm patting and bear hugging, but this is just for friends, not on first meeting.
While a very limp handshake can seem unattractive, avoid too much pressure, as this can hurt women wearing rings or anyone with arthritis. Grip the palm not the fingers. Remove your gloves, if applicable, and make sure your palms are not sweaty. Always use your right hand even if you are left-handed. If you have an injury and do not want to shake hands, make it clear quickly so as not to appear rude.
Kissing is taking over from handshaking, almost as the handshake took over from the bow, although men kissing one another is still unusual. However, kissing is not appropriate in many professional situations. On the whole it should only be used among friends, not at first meeting.
Social kissing varies according to the age of the people involved. Older people may not want to be kissed at all and even if they do not mind, they often only expect one kiss. The double kiss, which is usually the man kissing the woman’s right cheek first, is the norm among younger people.
An air kiss, with no contact at all, may seem rude or impersonal, but at least it is not intrusive – it is simply a social kiss, not a sign of affection to a loved one. A very slight contact is best, and no sound effects are needed.
Who to Kiss
Women routinely kiss other women and men without it denoting anything more than a social interaction. Some men now kiss socially, but kissing is rare amongst the older generation (older men may find it embarrassing), within more traditional professions or in very rural areas. However, fathers often kiss their sons, even their adult sons (for example, the Prince of Wales) and the days of a manly handshake when seeing the 8-year-old off to prep school are over.
Many children hate being kissed by adults they hardly know. By the same token it is inadvisable for parents to force their children to kiss people. Instead they should encourage small children to learn to shake hands, which is seen as charming and a sign that they are well brought-up.
Avoiding a Kiss
If you really object to being kissed by people you hardly know then you may extend a straight arm and offer to shake hands, which should give a clear message. Do not force kisses on people who do extend a hand as a sign.
Hand-kissing, or rather a man bowing over the hand of a married woman, never a young girl, and not quite touching it with his lips, has never really caught on in Britain. It looks affected unless you come from a culture where men are brought up to hand-kiss.